What’s a novella? McBain says, 10,000 to 40,000 words—and adds, “It ain’t easy.”
Still, a marquee list takes a shot at it here, including the editor himself. The range is wide, the success rate high, and the degree of pleasure on offer remarkable. John Farris’s engrossing “The Ransom Women,” in which a tough cop, a lovely girl and a famous painter collaborate in a lethal Faustian bargain, may be the best, though Sharyn McCrumb’s grim, heart-rending, beautifully modulated “The Resurrection Man” is close behind. McCrumb’s improbable hero, a gravedigger, finds redemption through suffering, courage and Ghandi-like adherence to principle. McBain in “Merely Hate” and Donald E. Westlake in “Walking Around Money” add worthwhile installments to long-running sagas: Steve Carella and his 87th Precinct buds have what may be a series of hate crimes on their hands, while Dortmunder, pricklier than usual, has thieves falling out on his. “The Corn Maiden” is Joyce Carol Oates’s disturbing portrait of a monstrous 12-year-old girl, a spooky distaff echo of Leopold and Loeb. Stephen King tells the chilling, though strangely moving, tale of a 9/11 survivor to whom survival becomes a burden. Lawrence Block’s deft, cheeky “Keller’s Adjustment” is 9/11-themed, too, after a fashion, in its focus on a lonely hit man’s career change in the wrenching aftermath. Anne Perry’s “Hostages” revisits the Troubles in Northern Ireland a bit melodramatically, and Jeffery Deaver’s take on cloning in “Forever” is a bit dull. But Walter Mosley’s “Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large” is the only real disappointment here: such great prose, so little story.
McBain himself doesn’t quite make the point, but the best of these performances do: The novella, once called the novelette, may be the ideal form for most crime fiction, if only there were a market for it.